May as well start with an overly pretentious title.  Being overly pretentious can be fun.

I expect to talk a lot about art, seeing as I consume so much of it, so it’s probably best to start with a basic philosophy of how I see art.  For the sake of this discussion, I will use an extremely broad definition of “art.”  Put simply, I am defining “art” as “something that is crafted,” be it a sentence, a painting, a sculpture, a tool, a house, or, really, any object.  For the sake of simplicity, we will call the crafter(s) the author.

When we talk about art, we talk about one of two things – the actual thing; or the experience of engaging the thing.  Frankly, there’s little to say about the thing – it is what it is.  Much more valuable is understanding the experience of engaging.

Engaging art is, in essence, the lion’s share of our lives, vying against engaging nature and engaging people.  We can break the engaging into two sets of components – the fixed and the malleable.  The fixed elements of the experience are the author’s intent, the interpretation, and the crafted product – the thing.  The malleable elements are reception by the culture and reception by the  individual.

Author’s Intent

When crafting something, the author (this can be an individual or a group) has some sort of reason for making the thing.  There is no such thing as an unmotivated action, especially an action like crafting, which implies some degree of focused intention.  The author does not always know his motivation, yet it exists nonetheless, and the motivation for crafting the art will never change.  there may be different motivations in the course of crafting, but the author’s intent, as a facet which informs the experience, is the whole of all these motivations.

Author’s intent generally includes the intended purpose of the art.  The purpose can be “no purpose” or “to inspire” or even “to aid in manual labor.”  Especially for more involved art, the author’s intent includes the author’s interpretation or the intended meaning of the art.

The author’s intent is the least integral to the experience of engaging the art, even though it is often given significant weight.  As a general rule, the only actual value of the author’s intent is to inform interpretation.  If a man builds a house, and it is the worst house you’ve ever seen, you are likely to judge the man incompetent, because it is assumed that the author of the house intends for the house to be good.  However, if the author intended the house to be bad, and you are aware that this was the intent of the author, you will look at the negative features of the house with the understanding that these features were intentional.  Knowing this, even if you don’t care for the idea of constructing bad houses, the same negative features that used to mark the man as incompetent now indicate the depth of his knowledge of house construction.

Interpretation

It is natural to assume that interpretation is a malleable feature of experiencing art.  After all, the interpretation is often formed concurrently with the experience.  However, an interpretation, like the author’s intent, is formed, then remains.  New interpretations can be crafted, but the original interpretation remains.  This is important, because interpretations can be adopted as well as crafted.  You can apply a known interpretation to a work of art as you experience it, and such an interpretation will affect your experience.  To add to complexity, you are then experiencing the interpretation as well, but life simply isn’t complete without some infinite recursion.

The Crafted Product – The Thing

This is, as noted, what is often called art.  In fairness, it is the only constant throughout all experiences.  The author’s intent is rarely known, and likely never fully understood, and interpretations are interchangeable, but the object is the object.  This can be a sentence, a statue, a story, a book, a video game, a hammer, or anything else that was crafted.  As noted, it can even be an interpretation of an art.  Because it is the one common element, it is fair to consider it the focal point of the art experience.  Therefore, it is the one subject to judgement.  The author’s intent can be judged, but the author’s intent generally has no bearing on the merits of the object.  A divine inspiration can result in a crude stick figure.  A selfish malicious act of brutality can result in beauty that moves men to tears.  An interpretation can be judged, but that is because the interpretation itself is art.  You may attempt to judge the malleable aspects, but you may as well be judging the experience itself.  It is good and proper to judge the experience for your personal benefit, but a bad day does not make the art bad, and a good day does not make the art good.

Therefore, we judge the thing.  But there is only so far you can go in this respect – the thing is only a part of the experience, and the experience is that which truly matters.

Cultural Reception

Put simply, the cultural reception is the dominant interpretation of the art by a given culture.  For every cultural interpretation connected to the art, there is an influence on the experience of the individual.  When someone watches Citizen Kane, he is likely to do so with the knowledge that it is “the greatest movie ever made.”  This cultural reception will color his viewing.  He is not watching Citizen Kane from a blank slate, but through the lens of a wider interpretation.  To a practiced individual, the cultural reception can be screened out like any interpretation, but cultural reception, as well as knowledge of any other interpretation, will also influence the final element – personal reception.

Personal Reception

When a person experiences a work of art, he does so in light of his current mental state, his experiences, his memories, his values, and everything that makes him who he is.  At the same time, his experiencing the art changes him, as all experiences do.  It is impossible to truly have the same experience twice, as the first experience is an element present in the second experience, but absent from the first.  There can be extremely similar experiences of art, but never the same.  As this is the person’s very selfhood, this is the most pivotal element in experiencing art.  Arguably, all of the elements other than the object itself can be condensed into the personal reception, as the other elements exert themselves on the self either prior to or during the experience.

A piece of art can be truly terrible from an objective sense and yet resonate with an individual.  The person may even acknowledge the terribleness, but cannot deny the truly positive experience.  This is most obviously perceived through the concept of nostalgia.  Finding out that art experienced in childhood is terrible does not negate the good memories of the experience from childhood.  If the memories and experience are strong enough, a new experience can still be enjoyable – even though the objective elements of the art are abhorrent, they stimulate the good memories of the good experience, and the final experience is itself enjoyable.

 

As stated in the opening, this can apply to pretty much anything.  Using a hammer is an experience of art – looking at a hammer is experiencing art.  A teenager cuddling a ratty old blankie is experiencing art, pleased not necessarily by the quality of the fabric, but the memories of the previous experiences.  The end result – you can do much to understand art, and you can judge the objective quality of art, but there is no such thing as a right or wrong experience of art.

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